A Travellerspoint blog

Myanmar (Burma) on reflection

I’ve spoken to a few people about our trip to Burma over the last few weeks. I think we must both make it sound like hard going, which in many ways it was...although I don’t think Justin’s illness, our (in hindsite) short timescale and lack of dollars helped! The distances are massive and we only saw a small number of touristy places in the middle of the country. No wonder Aung San Suu Kyi needed a break after the punishing travel schedule she set herself for pre-elections campaigning.

But, following the recent by-election and ongoing, albeit small, changes we would strongly recommend a visit. The breathtaking views as I walked out of a small dark archway and saw hundreds of temples stretching out in every direction as far as the eye could see across the Bagan plain will be one of my favorite memories from this trip. As will sitting in a boat silently watching the silhouetted Inle Lake fishermen prepare their nets as the sunset behind them, turning the sky and water beautiful shades of orange, pink and red.

More importantly though it was the people that we met along the way. We felt very privileged to have had the opportunity to visit the country at what feels like a monumental moment. The guidebooks and websites will tell you that people don’t talk in Burma, not to ask questions or to expect answers.

We found a very different Burma. A country where people appeared by your side out of no-where to whisper their support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party as well as their dreams of a better life for their children and grandchildren. A country where political posters were tentatively appearing in shops for the first time, with proud owners speaking of their hopes for a more prosperous business in a more democratic and open country. A country where the market-stall holders were openly selling anything they possibly could with a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi on!

We also met people willing to speak about what it was like to live in Burma. We met a forty-year-old man whose words will stay with us forever. He spoke about his life under the military junta, finishing his story with the words: “On the outside we are smiling” and at this point crawled into a ball with his hands over his head and his wide eyes peering out (whilst his friend tried to shush him and kept saying he would be arrested and taken away) “but inside we are scared and crying.” We both choked back tears. This man had lived a life we would never be able to understand. It certainly made us realise how much we take for granted.

Many of the news stories surrounding the elections have focused on the single lone figure of Aung San Suu Kyi – “The country’s only hope.” as one fellow traveller put it. She is certainly one of the most amazing women in the history of politics. You should read one of her autobiographies if you haven't already – truly inspiring, an unconditional commitment to her country and people – or listen to the podcasts from last years Reith Lectures.

However, she is not alone. Just look at the political prisoners recently released or still in prison. The grassroots campaign groups. The Burmese rap and rock musicians. The democracy campaigners. The business owners. The average person on the street. To say Aung San Suu Kyi is alone undermines the impact of a little hope, the importance of an idea and the power of people ready for a change for the better. We were so happy to read stories about the by-elections, flawed as they were, particularly as we know how much it will mean to some of the individuals, families and businesses we met along our travels. Visit Burma…and travel responsibly!

In the words of Rudyard Kipling…“Welcome to Burma. It is quite like any place you have been before.”

Posted by Lynne Woolley 00:18 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Travelling to Borneo

Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. All in a few days work.

sunny 32 °C

We have a 60 day Indonesian Visa- gold dust for a country that takes so much time to travel around. We got it from London with much form filling. The only problem is that we must be in the country by March 25th or it expires. We need to get to Indonesia.

Our epic journey started modestly at little HeHo airport. Gateway to Inle lake. We waited with the Burmese and tourists as double prop planes from various random companies you have never heard of, fly in and out at regular intervals only stopping long enough to shut one engine down, bustle everyone in with their bags and swing out again. There was quite a commotion at the airport this morning as some dignitary was arriving. There were many groups in traditional dress being marshalled around the runway with traditional dancers doing their thing. We never worked out who the dignitary was as we only saw a head bob by and no one was quite sure who he was. We boarded our plane (I like walking across a runway to board a plane, makes it feels a bit more real) and then headed into the sky with the ground crew all waving at our plane (seriously!).

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Traditional dress at HeHo airport.

Arriving safely back in Rangon we headed back to Mother Land 2 and collapsed. We did try and find a local restaurant for dinner but none really looked sanitary enough and we ran away back to the hostel for our final night in Burma.

The next morning we were up early again to get the 06:30am fun bus to the airport and the salvation of an Air Asia flight to Bangkok. An uneventful flight deposited us back at Bangkok airport and we were soon making our way to Hualaphong train station again to get the afternoon train to Butterworth, Malaysia. A simple 24hour hop! But before we boarded we got some long missed yummy food. Lynne almost cried at the flavours of her chicken noodles and I am sure she actually did cry when she ate her chocolate donut!

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Mother Land 2.

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Mother Land fun bus.

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Happy with Dunkin!

The train journey down through southern Thailand was beautiful. A comfy seat watching the ever present SE Asia limestone karsts rising up through bright green paddy fields. It was lovely to see the tropical lushness of southern Thailand after the more barren northern SE Asia of Burma and Laos in the dry season. We continued our feeding with a delicious set meal on the train.

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View from train of Southern Thailand.

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Train set meal.

After a reasonable nights sleep on the train we arrived at the Malaysian border mid morning. We were a bit disappointed to find the train stopped there due to railway works and we were ushered on to a bus to Butterworth. The bus took a lot longer than expected and by the time we got to Butterworth, then the ferry to Panang and another bus into Georgetown we had been travelling for nearly 30 hours. However we found a nice clean pad in Chinatown which was willing to do our Burmese laundry (very brave).

Georgetown. UNESCO number 6! And what a great little place it is! Sitting where it does it was an important base for the Birtish Empire and preceeded Malakka and Singapore. Rows of trading houses from centuries of commerce line the narrow roads of Georgetown. Smattered around these are some well laid out Colonial gems. But the absolute best thing is of course the world famous Penang food. Chinese, Indian, Malay and every fusion possible from those three all sold from clean, cheap food vendors. On our first night we ate an amazing bowl of chinese noodles with pork and vegetables for a dollar. Then had dinner number two an hour later of chicken Biryinai and mango lassi. Truly some happy Woolleys!

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Georgetown.

We spent the next morning exploring the town some more before getting the bus out of there along the coast to the beach resort on the north coast of Panang. We got a good deal at the Holiday Inn beach resort and settled in for some serious nothing, and eating. First night was Lebanese BBQ meats, salads, flat breads and lemon, mint juice. The next night was the Panang style food court where I tried to eat my body weight in garlic and chilli prawns. I almost succeeded. The beach resorts were very popular with Arabs and there were some surreal sights, for me at least, of men in swimming shorts walking beside their wives in full hijab and sunglasses. At dusk it seemed very popular for these dichotomies of clothing to go paragliding and I saw many being whisked up into the sky by the speedboats. The world is truly a diverse place.

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Giant prawns. Yum.

After 2 days off and not quite enough rest we were travelling again. A bus back to George town and then a bus to central Kuala Lumpar. KL is a mirror of the mainland peninsular Malaysia we have seen on our short travel through. Modern, organised, generally clean with great food. The melting pot of Malaysian ethnic groups is a joy to travel though.

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Bus to KL- massive seats.

We found another pad in another Chinatown and explored a few sights of KL including KL town and the Petronas towers. We escaped the midday heat (which combined with its mega humidity is pretty uncomfortable) and went to see a lunch time showing of the Hunger Games. I admit to being a little disappointed. I love that genre of film:, distopian battle for your life Sci-Fi, but it falls well short of both Battle Royale and even the Running Man. Still a decent way to get out of the midday sun and see some of Malaysia consumer monstrosities. The modern day cathedrals that are shopping malls.

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Dim Sum in China town- yummy!

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KL Tower its big!

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Lynne was impressed.

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Petronas Towers.

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Inside Megamall.

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Night market in Little India.

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F1 was in town for the GP.

The next morning and we are up at 04:30 to get the bus to KL low cost airport and get an Air Asia flight to Balikpapan in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Over 4000km in less than week. Let the Organ Utan search begin.

Posted by Justin Woolley 01:58 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Inle Lake

sunny 30 °C

We’ve just arrived after our mega bus journey. The seats were as hard as wood, the dust at times unbearable (as was watching the Burmese slave away making the new roads by hand in the heat of the midday sun), I think I may have refractured my back and the woman asleep on Justin’s knee dribbled…apart from that I loved seeing the Burmese countryside, mountains, villages, markets, trains, election cars and general day to day life.

We’re currently stood at the hotel I booked over the phone before we left Bagan. A woman behind reception is having a strop and doesn’t want to speak to us. Her neighbour appears to tell us that they are full. That’s fine we have a booking. “Is your name up there?” he asks. I look at the board and cannot see our name. “Then you don’t have a booking”.

He offers to take us across the road to another hotel. By this point we are exhausted and agree to spend the night in what turns out to be the dirtiest place we have stayed in our travels so far. To make matters worse we notice over breakfast the number of government awards and flags in the communal room…definitely government run. We are both gutted, pack our bags and leave.

We book a boat trip on Inle Lake for the day. We head out in a thin little wooden boat equipped with a motor at the end of a long metal shaft. Inle Lake stretches out as far as the eye can see and fishermen are already busy at work. Our driver stops so that we can watch them paddling their boat paddles with their legs in a S-shaped movement. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. Our boat driver happily walks up and down the sides of the boat, leaving Justin and me clinging to the sides a little. It is a little wobbly even for a couple of rowers!Justin in a boat without a paddle!

Justin in a boat without a paddle!


Inwa Lake fisherman setting his nets in the morning

Inwa Lake fisherman setting his nets in the morning

Scaring fish into nets with big sticks, whilst perched on the edge of a very thin boat

Scaring fish into nets with big sticks, whilst perched on the edge of a very thin boat

Children learning how to paddle from an early age

Children learning how to paddle from an early age

Paddling with the feet whilst fishing

Paddling with the feet whilst fishing

The water is crystal clear and you can see down to the bottom of the lake. We head towards what looks like solid land but as our boat driver slows and turns down into a smaller channel you suddenly realize everything from the tomato crops to the houses are floating on top of Inle Lake. Children happily scamper up and down little boats and everyone is busy washing clothes, preparing food and making handicrafts.
Floating village above the lake - farmland, houses, schools, temples, markets etc

Floating village above the lake - farmland, houses, schools, temples, markets etc

Collecting lake weed to make the vegetable beds

Collecting lake weed to make the vegetable beds

Floating gardens...until Justin stood on them and then they were sinking gardens!

Floating gardens...until Justin stood on them and then they were sinking gardens!

The Inle Lake markets move around the village on the edge of the lake every day, with each village specialising in a different handicraft. We head to the south lake market and find that we are not the only ones there! Men and women wearing their traditional clothing have travelled for miles around to buy essentials. Most of the market is filled with food sellers (including stall after stall selling fish and eels), clothing and DVDs. At the far side it turns into tourist tat heaven.
The fish market

The fish market

I don't think we were the only people who wanted to go to the market. Hope we can remember where we parked our boat...

I don't think we were the only people who wanted to go to the market. Hope we can remember where we parked our boat...

We get the shaky wooden boat out of there and head to some of the stilted handicraft workshops, including a weaving and silver workshop. In one workshop we meet a small group of ladies from the northern states. They are sat in a corner weaving traditional patterns. They wear golden hoops around their necks that have, over time, elongated their necks to what Justin describes as deadly lengths. We try to talk to them through one of the Barma ladies but we unfortunately didn’t get very far. Internet access hasn’t been great for the last week so I haven’t been able to search for additional info. They smiled and chatted away the whole time we were there, but it all felt a little sad. I guess it was that feeling that we had turned up at what we have started calling ‘the human zoo’.
Blacksmiths workshop

Blacksmiths workshop

Weaving workshop, with ladies creating traditional patterns from northern state

Weaving workshop, with ladies creating traditional patterns from northern state

Our final stop is ‘the jumping cats monastery’. Justin was very excited by this and I was worried that he’d be let down. We had read several reviews that described it as ‘the sleeping cats monastery’. But…we were not disappointed. One cat jumped through a hoop. The others all looked a little too tubby to get some air on their jump for food diet. Justin is looking forward to teaching Coco, Metu and Kimber when we get home!
Yes that is a cat...jumping!

Yes that is a cat...jumping!

We head back into the middle of the lake to watch the beautiful sunset, which was absolutely breathtaking…until our boat engine exploded in a poof of black smoke…in the middle of the lake…as the sun is disappearing behind a mountain… and the mosquitos gleefully surrounded us. 10 minutes of frantic waving saw us saved by another boat, much to the amusement of all the local water taxi passengers.
Beautiful sunset over Inle Lake

Beautiful sunset over Inle Lake

We head back to our new homestay, which is run by a wonderful family who make us feel like we are some long lost relatives visiting for a few days. They fill our dinner table with traditional food - vegetables, potatoes, rice, soup and a giant grilled fish – and keep coming back to see if we need more. The next morning we wake up late (as I turned the alarm off and went back to sleep…opps!) and after gulping down a wonderfully large breakfast of pancakes, we rush over to the starting point for our hike into some of the nearby villages and countryside.

We walk up a dusty road before cutting into farmland. It is dry season and only a few crops are growing at the moment. Tumeric, used in traditional curries, is being dried out and the ladies are hard at work preparing it. We visit a couple of local temples and learn about meditation rooms and caves, where monks will meditate in the dark for anything from a few hours to several years. We spend a couple of hours watching our lunch being made over a smoky fire, before heading off with very full stomachs to go to a local winery (verdict – stick to beer). From here we stumble the rest of the way home down some pretty back routes to town for an early night before our mega journey to Indonesia starts...
Hmmm tasty tourist sunglasses...

Hmmm tasty tourist sunglasses...

(Problem uploading photographs - will try again soon)

Posted by Lynne Woolley 08:03 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Bagan

Land of a thousand temples.

sunny 35 °C

Arriving into Bagan along the Irrewady river as the sun started to drop we got our first glimpses of a number of temples along the riverbank. We were excited.

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Our first glimpse of a Bagan temple from the river.

We clambered up the sandy riverbank and were surrounded by hordes of taxi drivers. We were happy to see our name on a placard, held up above the bobbing masses. However I was bit surprised to see a different hotel than expected written on the placard. I suspect the hotel in Bagan dialed the wrong number. So far on our trip we had been booking through the Internet (not an option here) or waiting till we got to our destination. Here the hotels seem to be permanently busy so we have been booking ahead. This is done by asking your current hotel to ring them up, on answering the receiver is thrust at you and down a crackly line in pidgin English you book you next hotel room. So I wasn’t too surprised, just a little anxious at the cost and quality.

We got in the pickup and drove 30 yards before stopping and being told to buy our government ticket to enter the Bagan area. There was no way around this one and we coughed up. Behind us in the queue a couple were receiving an ear bashing from another couple as it transpired they had booked into a government hotel. I missed this conversation (as I was form filling) but a Canadian lady sharing our taxi tried to calm the situation. Later the Canadian lady sat down to proudly announce she had just bought Burmese days by George Orwell from the ticket office. I almost started to explain she had just given money to the government, before Lynne cut me off. As we drove away a hawker offered her the same book. In saying she had just bought it for 8000kyat she inadvertently bartered it down to 2000kyat. Justice done.

Happily enough the New Park Hotel was clean and comfortable, the price was as high as with all the other hotels. We have been a bit shocked by the price of Burma. We had budgeted double what the LP said for a comfortable living standard with emergency money, but have found everything has doubled or more than doubled in price over the last nine months. This meant Lynne got her accounting head on and started to rein in the spending. The reason seems unclear for this but the inflation is very apparent. One guide told us it was because there were now more tourists bringing more dollars since Aung San Suu Kyi had given the green light. He didn’t seem bothered by it though despite his cigarettes going up in price day to day by 100kyat.

Our first morning in Bagan and the planned horse cart ride was scrapped, as it was deemed too expensive by the lady with a new tight grip on the purse strings. Instead two days of pedal power awaited. So with a map and a couple of litres of water we headed off onto the Bagan plain. The enormity of the place soon dawned on us as we walked up a small passage in the first small temple complex we came across. Hundred of spires and massive temples rise up in every direction.

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Our first glance of the Bagan plain.

Bagan rivals Angkor as the jewel of SE Asia but I have to admit I had never heard of it until looking into traveling to Burma. Founded in 1044 by a King who unified the country and embraced Theravada Buddhism. Soon a building spree started and over the next 200 years 4400 temples were built in the area. These temples often sit in groups with similar styles but the variety is stunning from classic pagodas, to gothic looking spire studded cathedral like structures and even a massive pyramid to top it all off. The plain they all sit on is relatively flat with little vegetation. This means that the view in every direction is stunning and always changing depending on which temple you have made it to the top of.

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A lot of temples. Some fantastic sights!

Over our stay in Bagan we found two absolute gems of restaurants. Neither in the Phony Planet! Bibo was a tiny restaurant on the main strip in Nyaung U. Run by the sweetest husband and wife team the traditional Myanmar food was the best we have had in Burma. Just off the main eating strip on Anawratha Road is Weatherspoon (which had had an s attached at the end to every menu and sign). When in Weatherspoons eat the Weatherspoons burger! The best in SE so far! Oh and it was cheap with the best Internet in Burma (when the power was on!).

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Food at Bebo.

Two full days in Bagan was enough, especially in the sweltering heat. However a journey from hell was looming over us. The 16 hour bus journey to Inle lake. We were told by other travellers if we could avoid any journey in SE Asia then this was the one. But the money was too low to get a flight to Inle and then a flight to Yangon (and I really didn’t fancy that 20 hour bus journey with a flight and train to catch the next day). And so it was at the “fresh” time of 04:30 we were picked up by the rainbow bus and our trip started.

It is difficult to describe the range of emotions, sensations and sights that one is subjected to during a bus trip like this one. I knew we were in trouble the moment I sat down and my knees were a full foot from fitting behind the seat in front. The prospect of spending the whole bus journey sat at 45 degrees was a pretty grim one, especially as the plastic stools were laid down the central aisle to get a few more on the bus. Luckily the bus conductor took pity on me and moved me to the front row. This meant I could keep back and legs straight. It meant I had to stay very still though as two grannies were resting their heads on my knees while they slept.

The bus was full of paan spitting locals. It had chickens in bags. The roof was soon used for seating when the seats inside were full. Progress was slow, especially up hills when the conductor had to jump off and stick a giant wooden triangle under the front wheel to stop the bus rolling backwards when the driver couldn’t find gear (which was a lot). The speedometer only showed 0, or -5 when going up hill. The rev counter was shot and a red light flashed from the moment we left Bagan.

Half way up a big mountain range we stopped to cool the engine. A hose was sprayed into the engine and water started pouring from around the dials, buttons and foot pedals. No-one seemed at all surprised by this. We passed markets, we passed campaigning groups for the government and NLD. We passed so many army bases. All in all, apart from the sweat and pain we both felt we had seen more of Myanmar in those 16 hours than in the preceding week. Painful but good.

Posted by Justin Woolley 23:07 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

The road to Mandalay

sunny 32 °C

We have arrived at what appears to be a giant bus village. There are people spitting paan everywhere (including on my feet), animals of all shapes and sizes in baskets and buses that look like they date back to the 1970’s. We jump in the back of a pick up and head to our hotel in Mandalay. People keep asking about our accommodation so I’ve included some pictures:
Our room in Mandalay

Our room in Mandalay

Our bathroom...exciting stuff!

Our bathroom...exciting stuff!

Thought this was mint flavoured...turns out to be salt flavoured...hmm glad we bought such a big tube

Thought this was mint flavoured...turns out to be salt flavoured...hmm glad we bought such a big tube

Unfortunately Justin was still not feeling great, but we head out in search of a street stall that sells amazing chapatti and curries. We meet a couple of travellers who have arrived back from a trip further north (or at least as far as tourists are allowed to go out of Mandalay without a license). We chat about their travels, the up and coming elections and ask for advice about Mandalay, whilst we watch the ladies churning out hundreds of chapatti.
Chapatti and curry...yummy!

Chapatti and curry...yummy!

Milkshakes and Premiership football live!

Milkshakes and Premiership football live!

Afterwards we head to a milkshake place they recommended and Justin goes in search of a TV showing British football. He doesn’t have to go far. Most teahouses and beer stations are packed with football mad Burmese men watching whatever game (sometimes multiple games) they can. We are greeted with the now familiar: “Where you from? England? Manchester? Manchester United or City? Tottenham Hotspur okay! I like Rooney!” We find out later that people stay up all night on Saturday and Sunday to watch the games back to back. They know teams inside out, they know the scores of every European League match that week and they even know who is going to replace Alex Ferguson when he retires!

As a city Mandalay gets a rough time in the guidebooks and we found that many people were trying to avoid it altogether. On the negative side it was dirty. The air was filled with thick dust and wafts of excrement - nice. On the positive side everyone is very friendly, very helpful and very welcoming. At night there were no streetlights but many of the religious sites were lit and looking down the road could see cyclo riders lit up by the headlights from cars. I enjoyed just wandering around.
Dark streets of Mandalay at night

Dark streets of Mandalay at night

Neontastic lighting of religious sites

Neontastic lighting of religious sites

I bump into a Dutch couple (and their two year old son) in the hotel lobby and together we rent a ‘blue taxi’ to explore the royal villages around Mandalay. Our blue taxi turns up and the driver looks at Justin and Hans, who are both over 6 foot, and then back at his tiny taxi. This could be interesting.

We hit the road and speed along as fast as the blue taxi will shudder us. We keep being overtaken by beeping, packed to the rafter, buses with everyone (including the drivers) leaning out and waving. They usually swerve violently in front of us a few minutes later to pick someone up before accelerating past us again in a belch of smoke and cheers.
Mini taxi and two six foot plus guys

Mini taxi and two six foot plus guys

Always room for one more!

Always room for one more!

Our driver drops us off at a Marionette (wooden puppet) workshop. Mandalay is Marionette capital of Burma. There is a wide selection of beautifully carved puppets, ranging from tigers to giant genitalia! Tim is scared out of the workshop by a scary possessed looking horse marionette, whilst Justin and I have a good time rummaging through barrels of old marionette heads.
Mandalay marionettes

Mandalay marionettes

Really scary Mandalay marionettes!

Really scary Mandalay marionettes!

There were a lot of Marionettes!

There were a lot of Marionettes!

We spend the day visiting three villages on the outskirts of Mandalay. Our first stop is Sagaing Hill. We climb up a set of steep stairs (if an enthusiastic two year old can do it so can I!) to the top to visit a Buddhist temple and cave. On a clear day the views must be amazing. Unfortunately it is dry season and people are burning the crop fields in preparation for the wet season so a haze covers most of the view.
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IMGP8871

Plasticfantastic

Plasticfantastic

We next head to Inwa, which was the Burmese capital for nearly four centuries. You can only reach it by boat and once on the other side we hire a horse and cart to drive us around for a couple of hours looking at the sites. Tim falls asleep as we bounce off our seats and hit the ceiling of the cart. We avoid the government taxes and wander off to look at some of the sites around the edges:
Jumping on a horse and cart

Jumping on a horse and cart

Old temples

Old temples

Leaning clocktowers

Leaning clocktowers

Abandoned city

Abandoned city

Finally we head to Amarapura – city of immortality. We wander along the 200 year old U Bein’s Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. This is evidently the place to be at sunset for chatting, learning English and people watching. This is definitely not the place for stiletto heals, which we watch a number of the local girls desperately trying to walk in:
Teak bridge in the background...river in full flow

Teak bridge in the background...river in full flow

Sunset

Sunset

We head home. Tim is fast asleep and I can feel myself doing a nodding dog impression. There is a massive bang. The brakes slam on and our driver jumps out and runs 50 meters back down the busy road, picks up the exhaust with a blanket (that looks suspiciously like it has been used for this before). “My exhaust fell off.” he sheepishly grins. Tim is still fast asleep.

We head to the ferry port the next morning and stand on deck to watch Mandalay disappear as the massive river winds its way down to Bagan. I had high hopes as I love to travel by boat and we’d heard good stories from people we’d met along the way. My happy mood was soon worn down by the grumpiest group of westerners we’ve met to date. We walked up to the middle deck to find tour groups jealously guarding their deckchairs. Smiles and friendly nods were met with glacial stares from everyone except the crew (we found out later there had been an argument about some of the groups staying in government run hotels). On the plus side it was definitely more comfortable than a bus and it was interesting to watch village life pass us by. We arrived in Bagan three hours later than expected, which we didn’t mind as it meant we could watch the sun set over the cliff temples – our first site of Bagan.

Posted by Lynne Woolley 23:00 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

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